With my time at Bristol City Council ending, it felt timely to reflect on data as well as my pride and thanks to everyone that has supported our Open Data work.
Four and a half years ago I re-joined the Council, within the City Innovation Team, to lead on Open Data. At that time, I had experience with smart city initiatives but had not realised the importance that data played. I soon realised data is the underlying resource that supports research and development projects to put bits of the jigsaw puzzle together. This in turn helps reveal new insights into the art of the possible.
The last few years have shown a range of challenges the public, private and charity sectors have faced. Some of these challenges can bring volatility, complexity, or uncertainty. While the early stage of the pandemic is a prime example of having to deal with ambiguity. All these challenges show an ever-increasing need for relevant, accurate and timely information that supports an informed and agile response.
For Bristol City Council it has been important to retain trust in how we collect and use data. This has enabled us to work openly with a range of partners to explore how best to use data to improve our city and deliver on the commitments in Bristol’s One City Plan and Smart City Strategy.
However, I have often found people apprehensive about engaging with data. It can mean different things to different people. Depending on how data is presented it can also be intimidating to engage with, rather than being seen as a resource for all. To address this, much of my work in the past few years has involved raising the profile of open data and working with data owners to identify and prepare datasets for publishing.
Bristol City Council currently publishes over 220 open datasets at opendata.bristol.gov.uk, covering everything from health and social care, crime and employment statistics to information about public transport. People can use this platform to find everything from food banks to electric vehicle charging points, and the information also provides a vital starting point for collaborative work like our air quality dashboard which is used to support dialogue with stakeholders about how to manage environmental issues across the city.
In keeping with our policy of becoming an Open City, we launched the Our Data programme. Over two years we ran a series of events which explored how to use data to address the council’s corporate themes and One City themes.
We began by planning a series of engagement activities, collaborating with technologists, data scientists, subject matter experts and enthusiasts to offer a range of events open to everybody. These ranged from large public ‘stakeholder engagement’ meetings to weekend-long hackathons and data jams.
Following a thematic “kick-off” event which explored how it would be possible to use data to address challenges identified by our strategic board, we brought together different groups including students and developers to come up with ideas for several projects, which were presented to local commissioners and investors at further pitching events.
Proposals were put forward outlining technical, data-led solutions, and several projects selected by expert panels received mini commissions of between £500 and £1,500 to develop their ideas.
The feedback from the events was phenomenal. The workshop meant people who may not normally cross paths, were able to openly share skills and ideas, to drive positive change and support people, and the participants really felt that they were innovating with data to make a difference in people’s lives.
In addition, a range of data products were created ranging from a machine learning that shows drivers the lowest emissions routes; an app that provides a guide to the trees and parks in the city; to a predictive data model that supports charities to share and use data to build a better picture of homelessness. The most high-profile result was the Period Friendly Bristol web app, which helps facilitate the donation and distribution of sanitary products to make sure that they are available to all women who need them. Details of all these products can be viewed at Bristol.codes – a Git repository: a version-controlled system for tracking changes in source code used in the development of computer software. Think of it as a social networking site for software developers. The Bristol. codes GitLab space has been created to host a copy of the computational code that powers the various data projects
In all, a total of 12 public events were held and attended by over 300 people (many attending multiple events). At the end of the programme, we held an online celebration to showcase the work done and celebrate its successes, which included improving public service delivery in the city region and creating new opportunities to innovate.
One of the objectives at the start was to use open data to help address the city and the council’s priorities through the creation of creative digital products. We achieved this and more, with other positive outcomes including creating a real sense of community, helping address people’s fears around data, gaining insights from a range of stakeholders and increasing mutual understanding, and we are really looking forward to seeing how the projects evolve and move forwards.
In the background we had been supported by the Open Data Institute, the University of Bristol’s Jean Golding Institute, the Alan Turing Institute, UWE Bristol and UWE Bristol’s The Foundry, Friska, Raw Space Coworking, BBC’s Academy, OpenDataSoft, Urban Things, the Engine Shed, Innovate UK, KWMC: The Factory, the ODI, Just Eat, Bristol is Open, NMI Payments, the Watershed, Bath: Hacked CIC and Digital Ocean.
Particular thanks go to This Equals, who have helped co-design and deliver this engagement work. Their knowledge, dedication and passion have been infectious and helped the project teams, coming out of the hackathons and mini commissions, to flourish in confidence. A special mention also goes out to Ajara Pfanneschmidt whose expertise in user experience and natural warmth supported the delivery of a range of digital solutions, specifically the Bristol Period Friendly Web App. Others who supported the Bristol Period Friendly Web App are mentioned on the web app.